Bangi, Afghanistan -- Northern Alliance soldiers said yesterday that Pakistani airplanes had once again flown into the encircled city of Kunduz to evacuate Pakistanis who have been fighting alongside Afghan Taliban forces trapped there.
The planes arrived as alliance leaders prepared to accept a partial surrender of Taliban forces in the last northern city they hold. But contradictory signals continued to surround the fate of Kunduz.
Earlier in the week, alliance officials said they had been told by a Taliban leader in Kunduz that at least three Pakistani air force planes had landed in recent days on similar missions.
Two more planes landed Thursday night, according to the latest report. One Northern Alliance official said a group of people had been observed yesterday waiting for another plane to arrive at the Kunduz airport.
None of the sightings could be confirmed. U.S. officials, who have been evasive on the subject, said they do not have information on the planes. Pakistani officials declined comment yesterday.
The United States is indebted to Pakistan for its support in the war against terrorism but has said it wants any foreign fighters trapped in Kunduz captured or killed. Pakistan has made clear that it is deeply concerned about some of its agents and soldiers trapped in the city.
As alliance officials and Taliban commanders have negotiated the surrender of the Taliban garrison at Kunduz in recent days, a major stumbling block has been the fate of thousands of non-Afghan Taliban fighters, many from Pakistan or Arab countries, who are considered to be the Taliban's fiercest soldiers.
The non-Afghan fighters have said that they will fight to the death rather than surrender. The prospect of a massacre is particularly troubling to Pakistan, which wants to prevent the deaths of Pakistani citizens.
The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, met with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in Islamabad yesterday and said the situation in Kunduz was grave and that any fighters who surrender should not be mistreated.
"If people are ready to surrender, then the surrender should be accepted," Straw said.
Musharraf has pressed the U.S.-led coalition to ensure their safe surrender.
But the Americans and British said they do not have troops to monitor the situation.
An American official said yesterday that the U.S. Central Command was considering how American and coalition forces might deal with large numbers of non-Afghan prisoners, especially those who might have valuable intelligence about the Taliban regime or the al Qaeda terrorist network.
"We are not interested in having a large, long-term presence of any kind or managing POWs," said the American official, referring to war prisoners. "But clearly, we'd be interested in interrogating the prisoners."
The treatment of prisoners would be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The organization's president, Jakob Kellenberger, arrived in Kabul yesterday to meet with local Red Cross workers as well as Northern Alliance officials about the prisoner issue.
U.N. officials in Kabul and Islamabad said yesterday that under international law and U.N. human rights conventions, members of armed forces who lay down their arms are entitled to be treated humanely, without any adverse distinctions on the basis of such criteria as nationality.
At the United Nations, Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for the secretary- general, said yesterday that the United States and its coalition partners should try to "facilitate" an orderly surrender if the Taliban offer to give up.
The United Nations has been working with Western officials to minimize the chaos in a postwar Afghanistan. Fears of massacres and power grabs by the Northern Alliance and other warlords have been rife since the collapse of Taliban rule in most of the country, spurring greater efforts to bring about a peaceful transition of power.
U.N. officials said yesterday that one of those efforts, a conference of Afghan groups trying to form a broad-based government in their country, has been delayed a day. The meeting will open Tuesday, rather than Monday, because of delays in getting all the participants to the venue in Bonn, Germany, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
The conference could come on the heels of a
major alliance victory. The deal for the surrender of Kunduz, worked out by
Taliban and Northern Alliance negotiators earlier this week, would end the
encirclement of one of the largest garrisons of Taliban soldiers left in
including a $25 million bounty for Osama bin Laden.
Northern Alliance troops closed in on Taliban and al Qaeda fighters trapped in Kunduz, seizing an outlying town without a fight. Alliance commanders say they expect Kunduz to surrender this weekend. But if foreign Taliban fighters refuse to lay down arms, a major battle for the city is likely.
While most attention has focused on the siege of Kunduz, Taliban and alliance troops also continued to exchange heavy fire in Vardak province, about 25 miles southwest of Kabul.
The Taliban continued to hold their principal stronghold of Kandahar, where the Taliban's leader, Mohammed Omar, was reported to have left the city - a report the Taliban quickly denied.
-- U.N. officials announced a one-day delay in a conference in Germany on paving the way for a new Afghan government after the Taliban's collapse. The meeting will open on Tuesday, rather than on Monday, because of delays in getting all the participants to the venue in Bonn.
-- International aid agencies raced against winter weather to get food, blankets and other supplies to desperate Afghans. The Red Cross sent a 59- truck aid convoy from Turkmenistan carrying 1,500 tons of food to Mazar-e- Sharif, and the World Food Program created an air bridge from Tajikistan, with aircraft taking 17 tons of wheat flour to the city of Faizabad. Iran's Red Crescent Society began distributing food and blankets to two overcrowded refugee camps outside the western town of Herat.
Source: Chronicle News Services
Chronicle news services contributed to this report.